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Vermonters flock to join McKibben, 350.org at largest climate march ever

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Posted on September 25, 2014 |
By Zach Despart



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NEW YORK CITY'S People's Climate March drew around 350,000 people on Sunday. Many Vermonters, including co-organizer Bill McKibben of Ripton, participated in the event. Photo by Win Colwell

NEW YORK CITY — Hundreds of Vermonters on Sunday afternoon joined an estimated 350,000 people on the streets of Manhattan for the People’s Climate March, the largest climate demonstration in U.S. history.

“This is the biggest event any of us will ever be a part of,” said Greg Dennis of Cornwall. “You just got a sense that if we can get this many people out on the streets, we can make leaders pay attention.”

The event, organized by several environmental groups including 350.org, which traces its roots to Addison County, was aimed at drawing attention to very real and ongoing effects of climate change. It was timed to coincide with a United Nations climate summit this week, which the UN says will host delegations from 125 countries.

Among the marchers were politicians, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, former Vice President Al Gore and several members of Congress, plus celebrities, including actors Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has long been outspoken about climate change, participated. In a statement Monday, he praised his fellow Vermonters for traveling hundreds of miles to participate in the march.

“Vermonters from across the state marched in New York City because they understand that climate change is the greatest environmental crisis facing our planet,” Sanders said. “They know that the United States and other countries must take bold action now to reduce carbon emissions and protect our planet for our children and grandchildren.”

Sanders also praised Bill McKibben, the journalist and Middlebury College scholar in residence who wrote the pioneering book on climate change in 1989 and co-founded 350.org in the last decade.

“Bill understands that the only way we’ll reverse global warming is if millions of people all over the world are prepared to take on the powerful fossil fuel industry and demand change,” Sanders said.

For his part, McKibben was ecstatic at the turnout on Sunday, which filled Central Park West for some 50 blocks. He tweeted that it was the climate movement’s “greatest day.”

“(This is) the day the climate movement came of age,” McKibben tweeted. “It took 25 years, but better late than never.”

McKibben told the Independent Monday afternoon that he and other organizers initially hoped for 100,000 marchers, only to see even their most ambitious estimates exceeded.

“It exploded; three or four times that many people showed up,” McKibben said. “We’re so grateful for everyone’s patience — especially those from places like Vermont, who traveled long distances to get there and were doubtless tired.”

THE SCENE ALONG Central Park West Sunday afternoon. Photo by Win Colwell

VERMONTERS AT THE HELM

The Vermont branch of 350.org rented 14 buses to transport Vermonters to and from the march. Ben and Jerry’s, a company that has long been committed to raising awareness about climate change, paid for part of the convoy.

Joanna and Winslow Colwell of East Middlebury attended the march with relatives and their 12-year-old daughter, Wren. They said they attended the march because they empathize with communities around the globe threatened by rising sea and river levels.

The Colwells live near the Middlebury River, which they said overruns its banks more often now than it did in the last century.

“Three times in the last five years, we’ve had to evacuate,” Joanna Colwell said.

She said that her family feels fortunate that should their house be washed away, they have the resources to find a new home. Much of the estimated 25 percent of the world’s population that live within 100 kilometers of a shoreline do not have that option.

“Most people in the world have nowhere else to go,” Colwell said. “They’re one storm away from a crisis.”

Colwell said she believes Vermonters are more attuned to changes in climate because most live in rural areas:

“It seems that even though we’re not all farmers, we recognize our connection to the land and how we can’t survive without topsoil and the other things that are threatened by climate change.”

Her husband said he while political leaders have the ability to take action on climate change, if they do not, non-government actors must take the lead.

“If leaders aren’t going to take action, people need to rise up from the bottom and take action,” Win Colwell said.

Jon Isham, an economics professor at Middlebury College who has been involved in climate activism for more than a decade, was at a loss for words to describe the success of the event.

“It was really beautiful; that’s the word I used when I ran into Bill (McKibben),” said Isham, who, like many made the long trip down to New York and back in one day. “It was a magnificent event of so many people that were calm, thoughtful and determined.”

Isham said that while he was happy to see politicians participate in the march, he was glad that it did not culminate in speeches by a handful of leading climate activists, like Gore or McKibben, a close friend of Isham’s.

“The real mark of this march was that it’s a people’s march,” he said. “It was critical that there were no talks and no speeches.”

The professor, who a decade ago spurred the creation of a climate group at Middlebury College, said he made the trip down because he wanted to be a part of history.

“You just want to bear witness to something important,” Isham said. “Dr. King used to talk about a ‘blessed community,’ and you get a sense you’re part of that at a gathering like this.”

As a point of comparison, the People’s Climate March drew more people than the 250,000 that descended on the National Mall for the 1963 March on Washington, which culminated in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Isham likened this march to that one, and noted that the March on Washington resulted in two of the most important pieces of legislation in the 20th century — the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. He said he hopes that this march and others will persuade Congress confront climate change head-on.

“The challenge of climate change warrants something like that today,” Isham said.

Dennis said he has been involved in climate activism for more than a decade, and other social movements before then.

“I’ve been at a lot of rallies in the last 40 years, and this was the most joyous and hopeful of all,” Dennis said. “It was an astoundingly buoyant event, and there was a huge sense of optimism.”

He recalled the 2006 walk, headed by Bill McKibben, from Ripton to Burlington. That event culminated in a rally that drew 1,000 people, then considered the largest climate rally in this nation’s history. Dennis said he thought it was remarkable how quickly and by how much the climate change movement has grown since then.

“To go from a thousand to 300,000 people in seven years shows you how much people care about this,” he said.

DIVESTMENT PRESSURE

The biggest news on climate Sunday didn’t come from the march. Hours after participants celebrated in Columbus Circle, the Rockefeller family, which built its fortune in the late 19th century by creating the largest oil company in the world, announced it would divest its foundations from fossil fuel companies.

McKibben welcomed the announcement, and said it is an example of how the climate movement can succeed in convincing entities that control large sums of wealth — including foundations, governments and universities — to take their investment money out of fossil fuel companies.

“Around the world we’ll keep upping the pressure,” McKibben said. “That’s all we can really do!”

McKibben added that he hopes the call for divestment trickles back to Vermont, which has long been a hotbed of environmental activism. McKibben has backed efforts by 350.org and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group to persuade the state to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies.

“We’re very hopeful now that Gov. Shumlin will quickly follow up on his endorsement of fossil fuel divestment, and get it done,” McKibben said.

Isham said he expects students to again press the Middlebury College board of trustees to divest its holdings in fossil fuel, especially as the college searches for a new president next year. In August 2013, the board of trustees declined to purge fossil fuel investments from the college’s $1 billion endowment.

Isham said that the decision to divest by an organization as large as the Rockefeller Foundation shows that endowments don’t need to be invested in fossil fuels to grow.

“That they made that decision based on both the moral authority of the calling and the wisdom of having investments in fossil fuels, or the lack thereof, is a tremendous signal,” he said.

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